MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: When one of the most celebrated Vicars of Croydon was promoted to take charge of Westminster Abbey, his good fortune saw him acquire a piece of furniture linked to one of the greatest composers, as DAVID MORGAN explains
The Rev John Ireland was the Vicar of Croydon from 1793 until 1816, who went on to rise through the ecclesiastical ranks to become the Dean of Westminster Abbey.
For all his no doubt worthy achievements of 200 years ago, Rev Ireland is best recalled today for a piece of furniture.
But just any old piece of furniture – a bookcase, and a bookcase which once belonged to George Frederick Handel, the composer of some of the most sublime pieces of 18th Century music, which are still performed and enjoyed widely today.
Handel’s Bookcase is now part of the Fitzwilliam Museum collection in Cambridge.
Currently, it is on loan to the Handel and Hendrix House in Brook Street, Mayfair. Yes… 200 years after Handel lived in one of the apartments at the fashionable West End address, Jimi Hendrix had a flat next door. The two musicians, separated by centuries, are now united in a common museum.
Ireland acquired it in 1831 from the post-death sale of the property of Thomas Greatorex, the organist of Westminster Abbey. Greatorex was a fascinating character who was also an astronomer, mathematician and composer. After Ireland’s death in 1842, the bookcase was bequeathed to John Leman Brownsmith, the organist at St John’s, Waterloo (one of the Waterloo “Victory” churches, built following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815).
Brownsmith was also a lay vicar across the river at Westminster Abbey.
Public interest in this bookcase could be said to have begun on October 22 1842, when an article and sketch of it appeared in the Illustrated London News, a month after Ireland’s death.
Brownsmith must have been so pleased with his gift that the news of him being in possession of the bookcase, holding the great composer’s music scores and books reached the ears of a journalist. The Illustrated London News had just started up that year and the editor must have thought this to be a good story to interest their new readers.
The article described the bookcase as “a precious relic of the great maestro”, although there is no documentary proof of the bookcase’s early history. The story which the reporter developed was that Handel bequeathed the bookcase to Christopher Smith, together with the books and musical scores.
Smith was Handel’s long-time friend and music amanuensis. Handel’s will actually said that he left his harpsicord and manuscripts to Smith. There was no mention of a bookcase.
After Smith’s death, the bookcase was bought by two friends, Samuel Harrison, a well-known singer of the day, and Greatorex.
There was an understanding between the two that whoever lived longer would eventually own the bookcase outright. Brownsmith just bubbled over with the fact that the bookcase still contained Handel’s music written out in Smith’s hand and the reporter listed the oratorios, operas and anthems which were still on the shelves.
How much Rev Ireland actually paid for the bookcase in 1831, we do not know. Being Dean of Westminster Abbey, as well as holding other church posts, he would have been a wealthy man and able to outbid others to obtain the auctioned item.
Ireland’s stay at the Abbey saw him involved in many state events. He was present for three coronations, the first in 1821 of George VI. It was during this service that the Queen, Caroline of Brunswick, arrived for the ceremony but was turned away as she had no ticket.
Ireland’s other two coronations were for William IV and then Victoria, in June 1838. As the Dean, Ireland had the right to carry the crown down the Abbey’s nave, something he did for the two kings, though not for Victoria.
Ireland had spent some time abroad before he came to Croydon in 1793. He was a tutor to George, the son of Sir James Wright, 1st Baronet, and so went to Venice with them when they spent time in Italy.
While he was at Croydon, Ireland was appointed as chaplain to Charles Jenkinson, the first Earl of Liverpool, whose son, Robert, would become Prime Minister.
Benefiting from such powerful connections, a promotion seemed inevitable for Ireland. He was appointed as a prebend to the Abbey in 1802. While he was vicar of Croydon, he had been praised for the quality of his sermons, and in 1796 some of his collected sermons were published.
Once at Westminster, though, his skills and academic standing were more widely acknowledged. He became sub-dean in 1806, as well as being appointed the Abbey’s theological lecturer. In that capacity he would have taught the scholars at Westminster School next door. He also preached to the House of Commons in St Margaret’s Church, adjacent to the Abbey.
Having turned down the role of Regius Professor of Divinity, Oxford, John Ireland was made full Dean of Westminster Abbey in 1816. He continued in this role until his death in 1842, when aged 80.
Ireland was born in Devon and went up to Oriel College, Oxford. He looked fondly on his days in Oxford and bequeathed money in his will to support poor students studying at his old college. While Dean, he offered significant cash prizes for students at Westminster School and Oxford for academic achievements.
He married Susannah Short, who pre-deceased him by 21 years. The couple had no children.
After his death, Ireland was buried in the south transept of the Abbey in the grave of his lifelong friend, William Gifford, who had died in 1826. Gifford was a poet and satirist of some considerable note; Gifford and Ireland grew up together in Ashburton in Devonshire.
There is a marble bust of Ireland by the sculptor John Ternouth standing in the south aisle of the Abbey today.
John Ireland is the only vicar of Croydon ever to have become Dean of Westminster Abbey. His time in Croydon was brief. Although he kept the title of vicar after he went to Westminster, he appointed curates who ministered to the parish.
Coming from humble roots though, he understood the value of education and he supported young people to achieve their best. He relished the way that learning could smash many glass ceilings. Not many sons of Devon butchers got the opportunities in life as he managed and he always encouraged learning, especially through discussion and debate.
Visitors to his Westminster residence must have commented on his bookcase, though.
You might even imagine the conversation. “Oh yes, it is a fine piece. It was once owned by George Frederick Handel you know. You can see his manuscripts on the shelves.”
“Where did you manage to acquire it, Dean?”
“It was quite a coup, I can tell you. Let me top up your sherry and I will tell you the story…”.
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